Differentiation of functional limbal stem cells (LSCs) from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) is an important objective which can provide novel treatment solutions for patients suffering from limbal stem cell deficiency (LSCD). Yet, further characterization is needed to better evaluate their immunogenicity and regenerative potential before clinical applications.
Human PSCs were differentiated towards corneal fate and cryopreserved using a clinically applicable protocol. Resulting hPSC-LSC populations were examined at days 10–11 and 24–25 during differentiation as well as at passage 1 post-thaw. Expression of cornea-associated markers including PAX6, ABCG2, ∆Np63α, CK15, CK14, CK12 and ABCB5 as well as human leukocyte antigens (HLAs) was analyzed using immunofluorescence and flow cytometry. Wound healing properties of the post-thaw hPSC-LSCs were assessed via calcium imaging and scratch assay. Human and porcine tissue-derived cultured LSCs were used as controls for marker expression analysis and scratch assays at passage 1.
The day 24–25 and post-thaw hPSC-LSCs displayed a similar marker profile with the tissue-derived LSCs, showing abundant expression of PAX6, ∆Np63α, CK15, CK14 and ABCB5 and low expression of ABCG2. In contrast, day 10–11 hPSC-LSCs had lower expression of ABCB5 and ∆Np63α, but high expression of ABCG2. A small portion of the day 10–11 cells coexpressed ABCG2 and ABCB5. The expression of class I HLAs increased during hPSC-LSCs differentiation and was uniform in post-thaw hPSC-LSCs, however the intensity was lower in comparison to tissue-derived LSCs. The calcium imaging revealed that the post-thaw hPSC-LSCs generated a robust response towards epithelial wound healing signaling mediator ATP. Further, scratch assay revealed that post-thaw hPSC-LSCs had higher wound healing capacity in comparison to tissue-derived LSCs.
Clinically relevant LSC-like cells can be efficiently differentiated from hPSCs. The post-thaw hPSC-LSCs possess functional potency in calcium responses towards injury associated signals and in wound closure. The developmental trajectory observed during hPSC-LSC differentiation, giving rise to ABCG2+ population and further to ABCB5+ and ∆Np63α+ cells with limbal characteristics, indicates hPSC-derived cells can be utilized as a valuable cell source for the treatment of patients afflicted corneal blindness due to LSCD.